How Do You Prepare for Crisis Communications?

I’m not going to sugarcoat this: Strategizing and preparing for crisis takes time. It’ll take a lot of your team’s time, more than one brainstorming session, with several hours of message-writing to follow.

That can be a painful proposition for many communications departments these days. It’s also the best reason to walk through these exercises now. When you see how long it takes to prep strategies and messaging, you’ll understand why you don’t want to be spending precious time not communicating in the midst of a crisis because you’re still formulating a response.

I discussed addressing crises that relate to your company’s core competency in my previous post. Now, let’s look more generally across your business.

Don’t panic when you see the long list that follows! You and your team will decide what’s relevant to your organization, which will help you cross off items that don’t need to be discussed (of course, you’ll want to add concerns specific to your industry or company).

Here are some crisis-generators, both internal and external. Which are relevant to your organization?

Corporate policy
Financial impropriety
Operations (including supply chain, vendor management)
Workplace safety
Employee relations (labor practices and contractor management, office/plant closures, layoffs)
Deliberate acts of omission (issues the company knew about in advance and didn’t resolve)
Product development
Community relations
Employee sabotage
Overt acts (protests, tampering or hacking, lawsuits)
Violent acts
Natural disasters
Crises experienced by competitors in the industry (or by suppliers) that may reflect on your company
Events near company locations that may disrupt business

Next Steps

The following exercises will define how you respond to many of the potential crises identified above.

Start by brainstorming troublesome situations that have the potential to become crises using the questionnaire below. A few words about leading a brainstorming session:

  • Establish an open-minded atmosphere for brainstorming where everyone is encouraged to contribute and no suggestion is insignificant or off-the-wall.
  • Encourage team members to think like a reporter, play devil’s advocate, explore worst-case scenarios.
  • Enable the team to speak candidly about the company in the spirit of protecting its reputation and best interests. This isn’t the time to look at the company through rose-colored glasses – reporters won’t. No one should feel like she or he might be considered disloyal or “negative about the company” for suggestions made during brainstorming. You need everyone’s best ideas to develop crisis communications, not thinking that skirts issues because of politeness.

Use or adapt the following questionnaire for your brainstorming session:

  • List any troublesome situations that your company has faced in the past (even if you didn’t receive publicity at the time).
  • Define current or future initiatives or changes that might generate negative discussion of your organization.
  • What people, events and situations have caused negative publicity for others in your industry?
  • What other industries share similar issues with yours? What people, events and situations have caused negative publicity for those industries?
  • What allegations (as opposed to actual events) could be made about your organization, senior leaders or business operations?
  • What policy, event, situation or allegation would most damage the reputation your company has for its commitment to its values?
  • What policy, event, situation or allegation would most damage your organization’s reputation in the communities where you do business?
  • What policy, event, situation or allegation would turn suppliers and vendors against your company?
  • What keeps you up at night? What’s your worst-case scenario?

Now:

  • Make a list of business unit leaders and/or managers.
  • Assign team members to schedule interviews with business unit leaders/managers to discuss their areas of expertise and any potential issues that they’d like to have addressed by the crisis communications plan. Walk them through the questionnaire where it’s relevant and if it’s helpful.
  • Find out from business unit leaders/managers how the company will respond to a crisis in their area, how the chain of command works during a crisis, and what is and is not proprietary information.

Adding the expertise of business leaders can be essential in generating buy-in for the overall crisis communications plan. As part of this work, you’ll want to send out an email to business leaders prior to the scheduling of interviews to set the context for crisis planning and its value to the company, and to introduce the team member who will be contacting the business leader for an interview.

Can You Plan Crisis Communications?

Inquiries inevitably follow a crisis. Reporters, employees, customers, members of the board, suppliers, the social media universe – all clamor for answers often while companies are still responding to an event and are least prepared to deliver strategically developed, thoughtful, detailed statements.

The early hours of a crisis are a critical time period. If a company doesn’t help shape the perception of the situation in the public’s mind – or if the company’s response is incomplete, inconsistent or, worse, if the company appears to lack an understanding of the magnitude of the event or to be lying about it – traditional and social media will create a story for the public. Once that happens, it can be impossible to change first impressions.

Effective, planned crisis communications can prevent the misperceptions that lead to loss of reputation and revenue.

Planning the Unexpected

Is planning for crisis even realistic? Many people think of crises as sudden events that appear out of the blue and disappear just as quickly, like a thunderstorm. This is the reason some communicators offer for not planning ahead.

That seems logical: How can you write messaging to address something if you don’t know what it is; when, where, why, or how it will occur; and who will be affected?

But, I’d argue that crises rarely happen by surprise. Say, for example, your company or one of its branches or franchises is located in a region prone to earthquakes, hurricanes, flooding, or tornados. While you may not know exactly when a natural disaster will strike, it’s still possible to prepare a communications (and business continuity) plan to respond when they do.

Likewise, working with appropriate subject-matter experts in your organization, it shouldn’t take too much imagination to brainstorm the causes of other potential crises and get plans in place to address them.

In fact, negative public perception and negative media attention are far more likely if a company is believed to have ignored a minor situation, or allowed a grievance to fester, when it could have been resolved. These situations, improperly managed, can quickly escalate into full-blown issues.

In the Midst of Crisis, It’s Still Possible to Tell Your Story

When you’re prepared it’s possible, even during disaster, to turn on CNN or scan Twitter and find positive stories and messages about your company.

Two examples of this premise in action, one positive, one negative:

Johnson & Johnson’s response to Tylenol tampering in the mid-80s (an older example, and before the time of social media. Improperly handled, this crisis could have irreparably harmed the public’s confidence in the product. Yet with careful crisis management, which included swift, strategic messaging that focused on the company’s values and how they related to the public’s safety, the company was able to protect its reputation among consumers.)

Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s erratic communications, which continued for several months after a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the northwest coast of Japan, critically damaging its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant

Crisis & Corporate Reputation

An excellent starting point in preparing for crisis is to focus on your organization’s key area of competence. (Note that this assumes you and/or your department already are responsible for crisis communications and coordinating with key partners in Risk Management, Business Continuity, Human Resources, Legal, and Security. Getting buy-in for crisis communications is a topic for different post, another day.)

If you’re developing crisis communications plans, try this exercise. Write the answers to the following questions and include them in your brainstorming:

  • What is your company’s key competency?
  • What is the organization known for?
  • What’s your company’s tag line or motto?
  • What’s your mission statement?
  • How is this competency reflected in the organization’s values and business operations?

Now, for each of the answers, dig deeper:

  • What are the worst events or rumors that could befall us in our key area of competency?
  • How might someone twist our tag line, motto or mission statement to attack the company?
  • What kind of failure in the way we operate might reflect not just on our ability to deliver products or services, but directly on our values?

Finally:

  • Develop messaging to address each of the scenarios you’ve brainstormed.

There are several reasons why this is a valuable exercise:

  • It will start the process of brainstorming around where potential crises might crop up.
  • It will help you to develop messages that reiterate the company’s commitment to excellence and its values, which is crucial during a crisis.
  • It will help you discover information or resources you may need to answer questions, explore scenarios, or develop messages, but don’t have right now.

Natural disasters, product tampering, questions about your company’s competency – and worse. This is the stuff nightmares are made of. They keep CEOs and communications people awake at night. I’ve raised these difficult and distressing issues – and there are plenty more – for a reason. Strategic, reputation-saving communications rarely can be developed on the spot when a crisis hits.

On Thursday: I’ll provide additional checklists that will help in crisis communications planning and messaging.

Twitter: The Movie? You Bet Your Hashtag

Tan Siok Siok discusses “Twittamentary” after the June 28 screening in Los Angeles.

When I heard someone was making a documentary about Twitter, I had the same sort of reaction that folks did when they first learned there was going to be a film about Facebook: Were the filmmakers simply going to point the camera at a computer screen and let it all happen real-time?

What could possibly be so fascinating about Twitter beyond the Twitterverse?

I found out tonight when director Tan Siok Siok, a filmmaker from Singapore who tweets at @sioksiok, held a beta screening of “Twittamentary,” hosted by the Social Media Club of Los Angeles (@smc_la).

One of the fascinating things about this documentary is that Siok and her team relied on the same crowdsourcing approach that Twitter does to get the film made: she tweeted the whole time she was making it, people responded and shared their stories, Siok filmed them, and now that the piece is almost finished (she’s still making final adjustments to sound and color), she’s getting the word out and creating interest through these beta screenings via Twitter.

“I experienced a lot of generosity from people who wanted to help get the film made,” Siok said after the screening.

The structure of the doc – which takes the form of a road trip across the United States – is a smart choice; it stays out of the way and showcases the poignancy of the people who share what they’ve become because of their experiences on Twitter.

Yes, some of it’s silly and downright funny (as one interviewee gripes, she gets tired of trying to explain Twitter to people who’ve never been on it and who think it’s all about sharing what you had for lunch), but as the filmmakers travel to social media hubs like New York City, Chicago, Las Vegas and Los Angeles, the audience meets a growing, connected community of Twitter users whose humanity is unquestionably moving.

As Siok says, “The documentary explores the work of the human heart.”

There’s the homeless woman whose Twitter followers help her cope with loneliness and post-traumatic stress disorder, and make sure she has warm clothes in wintertime; there’s a female trucker tweeting to raise awareness of troublesome issues around sexual assault for people in the trucking industry; there’s the trucker’s dog, who has more followers than the trucker (which, she admits, is kind of depressing when a dog has more followers than you do); and there are writers and musicians, artists and advocates, rich and homeless, and a host of humankind all dealing with the quiet flow of daily life, the enormity of death and everything else in between, all contributing their personal and collective wisdom about this crazy channel that brings them together. You’ll want to follow all of them by the time the credits roll. I sure did!

There’s an interview with Siok on the Social Media Club of LA website. For more information on the documentary, visit the “Twittamentary” website.

Keep a Whether Eye Out for the Everpresent Wordsnatcher

Last week’s posts seem mainly about the topic of inspiration. For me, the inspiration to become a writer came from one and only thing: reading.

It wasn’t until many years had passed as a professional writer that I recognized this; I figured a love of reading and the craft of writing were natural allies, and they are. But, I also spotted a pattern throughout my childhood of books that:

  • inspired months of play because their plots were so beguiling that I and my friends just had to re-enact them;
  • conjured continual quoting of certain choice lines;
  • taught me right from wrong and the grey areas in between and what to do about them; and
  • introduced characters and themes that demanded to be revisited and rediscovered at different junctures in my life.

One of these books – The Phantom Tollbooth – may have had the same effects on you. I found it on a recent trip home to New Hampshire, underneath a stack of old books, and instantly began reading it and remembering all over again why I became a writer.

It was a pleasure to learn that writer Michael Chabon had a similar discovery:

“It was while reading The Phantom Tollbooth that I began to realize, not that I wanted to be a writer (that came a little later, at the mercy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), but something simpler: I had a crush on the English language, one that was every bit as intense, if less advanced, as that from which the augustly named author, Mr. Norton Juster, himself evidently suffered.”

Chabon is author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Wonder Boys, among many other novels, short story collections and essays, and this quote comes from his updated introduction to the 50th anniversary edition of The Phantom Tollbooth, which arrives in October.

For those who haven’t read Juster, or re-read this book in a while, The Phantom Tollbooth introduces the reader to Milo and an assortment of characters, such as the Whether Man, Tock the Watchdog, King Azaz and the Mathemagician, the Everpresent Wordsnatcher (who takes words right out of your mouth) and the Terrible Trivium (who surely haunts adults as much as children).

As with venturing through the looking-glass with Alice, paying your fare at the tollbooth takes you on an adventure that trusts you to think differently, play fairly, reserve judgment, and understand what’s happening without the intervention of an adult – heady stuff for a child.

“Why is it,” Milo is forced to ponder on his quest, “that quite often even the things which are correct just don’t seem to be right?”

Tollbooth isn’t all dark and danger-filled. There are feasts and castles in the air and language everywhere.

The book is rife with puns and plays on words and brimming with the pure joy of usage. As Chabon writes in his Tollbooth essay: “I can’t see how anybody who claims to love language can fail to marvel at the beautiful slipperiness of meaning that puns, like aquarium nets, momentarily catch and bring shimmering to the surface. Puns act to shatter or at least compromise meaning; a pun condenses unrelated, even opposing meanings, like a collapsing dwarf star, into a singularity.”

Near adventure’s end, King Azaz, whose name is itself a pun, and his brother, the Mathemagician, remind Milo that “so many things are possible just as long as you don’t know they’re impossible.” That is as true with language as it is in life.

But perhaps we should let Milo and Tock have the last word:

“I never knew words could be so confusing,” Milo said to Tock as he bent down to scratch the dog’s ear.

“Only when you use a lot to say a little,” answered Tock.

Updating to add that The New Yorker in its Oct. 17, 2011, issue sits down with author Norton Juster and illustrator Jules Feiffer for this lovely interview.

Two pieces of writing that inspired me this week:

“The book appeared in my life as mysteriously as the titular tollbooth itself, brought to our house one night as a gift for me by some old friend of my father’s whom I had never met before, and never saw again. Maybe all wondrous books appear in our lives the way Milo’s tollbooth appears, an inexplicable gift, cast up by some curious chance that comes to feel, after we have finished and fallen in love with the book, like the workings of a secret purpose. Of all the enchantments of beloved books the most mysterious—the most phantasmal—is the way they always seem to come our way precisely when we need them.”
~ Michael Chabon from The Phantom Tollbooth and the Wonder of Words”

“The last shafts of light waited patiently for a flight of wrens to find their way home, and a group of anxious stars had already taken their places.”
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

What’s on Your Summer Reading List?

Actor, screenwriter and now author Simon Pegg signs copies of his autobiography Nerd Do Well in Los Angeles last week.

Ah, summertime! The lake and the weeds and the barbeque and the basement clear-out beckon, but so does the comfort of your porch and the prospect of slipping into worlds undiscovered with a skilled author as your guide.

Several years ago, I was able to spend six weeks telecommuting from my summer place in New Hampshire and set a reading challenge of getting through John Updike’s Rabbit series. At the beginning, this seemed eminently possible, Rabbit, Run running to just over 200 pages with three books to follow. As I progressed, each book appeared to double the length of its predecessor, though, goodness knows, the writing and storytelling were never dull.

I was within reach of my goal with a few days to spare when I discovered that there was another chapter in Harry Angstrom’s saga, a 2001 novella called Rabbit Remembered, focusing on Harry’s family. This generated mild panic – after all, this was a self-imposed deadline and no one would know if I made up the fifth installment once I returned to Los Angeles – but the novella, part of a short story collection, was slim enough to manage in time to achieve my goal, and I’ve been enjoying summer reading marathons since.

In some future year, maybe I’ll tackle the Harry Potter series or the late plays of Shakespeare. This summer, it’s going to be a varied bag…

What I’m Reading on My Summer Vacation

From her startlingly original first book, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, to her short stories and series of Jackson Brodie detective novels, Kate Atkinson never disappoints, so her latest Brodie escapade, Started Early, Took My Dog, is going to generate hours of enjoyment on my porch…David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is my doorstopper selection (let’s face it, it’s either this or one of the Russians, but after barely making it through “The Last Station,” I’m not quite ready for that commitment)…The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens is a book that, as Lionel frequently notes on “As Time Goes By,” I always think I’ve read, but haven’t; there was a Saturday morning TV show in the ‘60s with the same title, featuring then-ubiquitous child star Pamela Ferdin, and that, I think, has confused the issue for me, though as I recall the plot of the TV series was nothing like that of the book; all of which makes this selection long overdue…Every now and then I like to sample something in the zeitgeist (like the Christmas vacation I spent speed-reading The DaVinci Code), and this summer that book probably will be The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, if its young fans have left me a copy at my local library…The witty and massively talented Simon Pegg (Shaun of “Shaun of the Dead”) has penned a memoir, Nerd Do Well, which I picked up during his recent signing in L.A. and have already begun perusing (pictures, at least)…

What I’m Re-reading this Summer

If you fall in love with great writing as often as I do, then you’re probably also an avid re-reader…

The porch where I'll be doing my summer reading.

This summer, I want to revisit Catch-22 by Joseph Heller and will try to get in Heller’s Closing Time, which is a 1994 sequel that it tickled me no end to discover – ever since a high school English teacher insisted that the last line of Catch-22 (“Yossarian jumped,” as near as I can recall) meant that Yossarian was dead and not, for crying out loud, a thrilling act that our hero had earned, signifying both his defiance and unrestrainable spirit. I cannot begin to describe how much I hated that interpretation, which, though she was entitled to her opinion, I knew in my book-loving heart had to be wrong, so I’m delighted to have the chance to catch up with Yossarian and his cronies in their later years…for some reason my copy of Not the End of the World (also by Kate Atkinson) lives at my N.H. house, and I’ve been dying to re-read it for a long time, so this goes on the list…for decades Story of My Life by Jay McInerney has been my go-to brain candy when insomnia hit and I wanted something light to read, but as the whole John Edwards saga grows ever sadder, I don’t think I can bring myself to enjoy this anymore…so, in the wee small hours of the night, it’ll probably be the surefire entertainments of Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding or Thank You For Smoking by Christopher Buckley.

How about your summer reading list? What classic have you been putting off? Which piece of brain candy will you enjoy? What new hardcover spine are you dying to crack?

Today is technically the first day of summer, so it’s time to find a cozy chair and get started.

Ready? Jump!

Margaret Atwood Joins Online Book Club Discussion This Afternoon

A quick update to my previous post on online book clubs: Blind Assassin author Margaret Atwood will be joining The Atlantic’s online book club discussion of her book in less than an hour at 2 p.m. PT (5 p.m. ET). You can follow the discussion via the Twitter handle @1book140 and on www.theatlantic.com.

Further details, including how to ask questions, are available in this Mashable article.

Whether You Engage with Social Media Followers Is Just As Important as Why and How

Some fascinating developments in last week’s big Twitter miscommunication stories.

On Thursday, I published this post about Rep. Anthony Weiner’s Twitter fallout and the gaffe by a PR pro, who was defending his client. Since then, The New York Times has done some digging (reported in this excellent article, “Fake Identities Were Used on Twitter in Effort to Get Information on Weiner”) and discovered that Weiner’s Twitter account appears to have been monitored by political opponents, that people using fake Twitter handles (i.e. not their real names) were trying to engage him in online conversations, and they were contacting young women Followers of the congressman to try to learn more.

In an effort to provide deeper insight into the Redner Group’s upset Tweet about reviews of its client’s game that went “too far,” Jim Redner has written a lengthy guest column for Wired dissecting what happened, why he wrote the Tweet and how he goes about selecting the media outlets that receive a few hundred free review copies provided by the gaming company.

I don’t know of anyone worth their salt in the PR, corporate communications, marketing or news business who hasn’t had something blow up in their face at some point in their career, especially early on. Whether it happened on camera, in print or in a client’s office, these are the moments that we learned from, generous peers forgave us for, and, after incorporating this new knowledge into how we practiced our craft, made us better, wiser professionals.

After these stories hit the presses last week, the two pieces of advice I offered to individuals, communications folks and brands were: Never assume you know your Followers (mainly related to Rep. Weiner’s concerns) and Never confuse your professional Twitter account with your personal account (relating to the Redner Group story).

To these I’d like to add: Be careful how you choose to engage.

The reason most of us – as individuals or companies – are using social media is to engage audiences large and small. Often that means an auto-Follow back when people Follow or Friend us. On Twitter accounts belonging to public figures, you frequently see Followers request ReTweets. Sometimes these have to do with asking support for charities or help finding a missing person, other times they’re like reading ancient Greek. Companies are often lauded for responding with the same empathy as humans, so it is understandable that some might want to ReTweet about a missing person or promote a good cause. However, some of these requests may not be about genuine nonprofits or real missing people. Do you or your company have the time and resources to investigate every one of these requests to ensure that the information on your Twitter account is reliable and accurate? And doesn’t your reputation, or your company’s, depend in part on the quality and accuracy of the information it shares?

Note that social media influence, as tallied by tools like Klout, is based on the frequency of your online engagements, and being ReTweeted by someone with a large Klout score – someone like a celebrity – will boost your score even higher. So Twitter users aren’t always engaging with your or your brand to be friendly; in some cases, there’s a self-serving interest.

Then there are the Direct Messages that some choose to reply to and others clearly have a policy of not responding. While I would never encourage a company to ignore a DM that related to a customer service issue, responding to DMs can get you in trouble if you don’t know the person making the request.

Remember that the concern is not only this individual (who may not be who they say they are), but everyone else who can view one or both sides of the conversation, and it doesn’t even depend on who they Follow, rather it’s determined by how much reading of your Twitter stream and your correspondents’ they want to do.

For companies and brands, establishing guidelines around conversations with Followers and Friends is a must. Thinking through why you might or might not want to engage in DMs or RTs with Followers you may or may not know – and what one RT might invite in terms of requests for others, and whether you can handle the volume – will go a long way to maintaining a consistent and positive online presence and help protect brand reputation.

In the world of online forums, people who don’t contribute comments, but regularly read all of the threads of discussions are known as “lurkers.”

So, be extra careful with your online and social media presence and engagement practices because you never know who you’re talking with and you really never know who may be lurking out there.

What We Become by Reading

NPR ran a beautiful Father’s Day story yesterday with Alice Ozma, author of The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared, and her dad, Jim.

Reading was an important family tradition for them – one that started when Alice was a little older than that classic image of parent-child reading moments. The lovely thing about traditions is that you can start them at any time; it’s the meaning they hold for you that makes them precious memories, not the length of time you’ve been celebrating them.

Was reading a tradition in your family? Since this is Father’s Day, what books did your dad introduce you to? Or did he impart a general love of reading?

My father was around for only two years of my life and then he was off traveling the world for many years. Before he left, he introduced me to and read to me from A.A. Milne (possibly his personal favorite) and Potter (Beatrix, this was a few years before Harry was born!). One of the few family photos he kept from this time is a faded image of me, propped on his knee, while he read Squirrel Nutkin or something similar.

By the time he was gone, I was already an avid reader, enabling contact with my faraway father through the post cards he mailed from Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and New Zealand, which is where he was born and grew up. In that way, he introduced me to the rest of the world and an interest in travel and other cultures, and the way to quench that thirst for knowledge was through reading.

It was my stepfather, though, who had the more profound influence on my life as a young reader. He arrived when I was 8 and, as stepparents can do, had an effect on the mood and culture of our family, which unexpectedly turned conservative.

My stepfather had grown up during the Depression, and his family lost everything. As a result, he applied himself to his studies, went to work younger than most his age, and, unlike his classmates, when he got into Yale, had to put himself through with several jobs. Understandably, he appreciated everything he earned and everything he learned.

His conservative outlook applied to all things except reading. He was intellectually curious, a devout reader, and encouraged an eclectic reading taste in me. At 8, I was already used to being able to read anything in the house, whether intended for children or adults, and this he never discouraged, adding his own books to our collection.

In the decade before his death, it was a relief and a joy to discover my stepfather and I had reached an accord, and the common ground was created by a love of reading and the ideas that sprang from books. We shared interests through authors – me supplying him with books by Stewart Edward White, whose adventure stories he’d grown up reading; he sending along the latest John McPhee tome.

My father and I were not able to declare peace, though I did spend the last few weeks of his life with him. It was clear there would be no resolution, so we shared time in each other’s company, looking at picture books of New Zealand. On the desk was a thick volume, C.S. Lewis’s complete Chronicles of Narnia. It was something my dad had always wanted to read, but never got round to and no longer had the strength to pursue. And so, in his last hours, when every breath was a struggle, I read to him of Narnia, in hopes that a familiar voice could help somehow on that final journey.

Of Bloomsday, June Gloom and Twitter Fallout

Bloomsday dawned gloomy here in Hollywood, where we are “suffering” through the annual fogbound weather pattern known as June Gloom. It’s the one month on the calendar when we Angelenos are socked in like San Franscisco is the rest of the year.

The day also brought two news items about the repercussions of misusing Twitter:

  1. the resignation of New York Congressman Anthony Weiner in what’s being called a “sexting scandal,” but really was caused by a misunderstanding of the nature of Twitter “relationships;” and
  2. the loss of an account by PR agency Redner Group following Tweets that suggested the flacks would blacklist some media outlets that chose to give their client, gamer 2K, and its latest offering “Duke Nukem Forever,” less than favorable reviews.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Twitter?

Both of these events have left commentators scratching their heads. In an Ad Age Digital article about the 2K firing of Redner, the writer asks, “How does this keep happening?”

It’s a good question because it seems like two highly keen advocates of microblogging as a means to promote clients and causes and generate grassroots endorsements – those would be the PR industry and politicians – truly do not understand how the channel Twitter actually works.

A couple of key lessons here:

Never assume you know your followers
Have no fear, I’m not going to add to the commentary on the Weiner affair. I only want to explore what I and you and anyone supporting Twitter accounts for ourselves or a company or client can learn from this mess. It seems to me that one key lesson is something our mothers tried to teach us years ago: Don’t talk to strangers.

On Twitter this means we may all need to let go of the little ego rush (hey, I get it, too; doesn’t mean it’s right) that comes with adding new Followers. Face it, if you don’t know these folks and their profiles indicate they aren’t even in the same industry, what’s the point? What benefit do you or your clients really get from having random Followers? As with using impressions to measure success for media hits, measuring Followers does not give you an accurate reading of your influence.

Ordinary people do not have confirmed Twitter accounts. Confirmed accounts are the ones with the blue badge next to them featuring a white check mark; you’ll often see these on the Twitter accounts of celebrities, companies or public figures. Former Rep. Weiner has noted that he was using Twitter to communicate with women he’d never met and didn’t know.

Here’s the thing: You can never assume that someone is who they say they are on Twitter. Some accounts – that go a long way to make it look like there are real people behind them, including using a photo of a pretty girl, cleverly written profiles and Tweets copied from other accounts to appear friendly and real – aren’t even run by people: they’re spammers. And some accounts may even be ruses by people who don’t have your best interests at heart, people like competitors, who try to draw you in to compromising conversations.

I’m not, if you’re wondering, suggesting that Rep. Weiner was blindsided deliberately. I’m positing the idea that it is to our advantage (and our clients’) if we know whom we’re engaging or enraging on a public forum like Twitter and, if we don’t know who a Follower is, that acting, as crisis consultants often do, on a worst-case scenario basis might be a better approach than giving an unknown an all-access pass to our personal thoughts, opinions and photographs and, with them, the ability to damage reputations.

Never confuse your professional Twitter account with your personal account
The Redner group Twitter incident appears to be one of those cases where personal reaction to bad reviews was vented on the same Twitter account used by the company. Presumably this company Twitter handle also was used to promote clients, which is a standard practice in PR, and done in the hopes that Followers who are journalists might be further enticed into doing stories. In this instance, they certainly were.

James Redner told Ad Age: “I used a public forum to voice my complaints and I know better.” He also said he made personal calls to media outlets to apologize and explain, which was the right thing to do. Still, the situation reflected on the client, which ended its relationship with the company.

It’s important to mention that emails between PR people/spokespeople and reporters have wound up everywhere from Twitter to blogs to TV news, which is to say that mistakes in one channel (email, which some might think is a more private channel) can find their way to other, far more public channels with many, many more viewers and readers.

If you’re writing in a highly personable style on your company Twitter account or on a client’s – or if your personal Twitter account uses a handle that’s easily recognizable as you (because reporters can find and read and make use of your personal account whether you think that’s fair or not, and Human Resources departments are doing across-the-board social media searches on prospective candidates) – never confuse being casual with saying anything that’s on your mind. A friendly writing voice is a stylistic choice made on behalf of you, your company or your client(s), it’s not real (and therefore at the service of anything you feel like saying). Your friendly writing style is all about branding and ultimately about maintaining a good reputation.

If you want to share highly charged feelings or opinions, it is perhaps wiser to use a journal or…I was going to say take them on a Bloomsday pub crawl, but in this era of Twitter and video cameras on cell phones, even that isn’t a safe bet anymore. It’s probably best to take your anger home with you and vent it there in private.

“Waste Land” Demonstrates the Transformative Power of Art

Photo by Vickie Bates.

Last night, I watched “Waste Land,” about the catadores who work day and night picking recyclable materials from Rio de Janeiro’s Jardim Gramacho landfill.

The documentary explores what happens when renowned artist Vik Muniz returns to Brazil to photograph the catadores and winds up collaborating with them on works of art – portraits composed of thousands upon thousands of items pulled from the dump that function like pixels in a digital photograph. Fifty-eight minutes into the film, the camera pulls back, and we see the enormity of the portraits the catadores are creating with Muniz, and the effect is mesmerizing.

The portraits are made of throwaway junk from the disposable culture of Rio’s suburbs, the artwork is swept up in the end and disposed of, but the people are never treated by Muniz or the filmmakers as disposable.

The documentary is all about the transcendent power of art. Through the course of the film, you’ll see people’s lives transformed by the act of creation – and by the faith that Muniz had in their ability to be true artistic collaborators.

The Rigdzin Duepa Sand Mandala, created by four master Tibetan mandala artists at Hammer Museum, Los Angeles.

Watching this film was akin to witnessing the creation of a mandala, which is a work of art, an act of faith, and a willingness to let go of the ego that wants to claim individual authorship and ownership. Like Muniz’s portraits, mandalas require a team of artists, daily renewal of one’s faith in achieving the final vision, and the strength to sweep it all away in the end and trust that the meaning will survive in the hearts and memories of those who’ve participated.

What happened for Muniz after the creation of these portraits transformed him, too, and it’s a fascinating story to follow as his life and the lives of the filmmakers and catadores intertwine and they take on responsibility for each other’s fates.

Rio will be closing the Jardim Gramacho landfill in 2012, according to the filmmakers, meaning that even these subsistence-level jobs will be lost. As a result of “Waste Land,” which was nominated for an Academy Award and won the 2010 Sundance Film Festival’s Audience Award for Best World Cinema Documentary, funds have been donated to the organization representing the catadores to provide retraining and upskilling, as well as education for their children.

You can learn more at the “Waste Land” website or rent or purchase the documentary at places like NetFlix, Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.

Is there a film, book, artwork that transformed your life, either in the creation of it or the viewing or reading? What was that experience like?